Thursday, May 11, 2017

Wheatfield – late August

oil on card 30x20cm

Another view from the train - late afternoon, last August. It’s a combination of two photos taken ten minutes apart; one had a bright wheatfield with a dull sky, the other of a very interesting sky with a dull landscape. (Interesting, for me, to see how dramatically the sky changed between the two photos.) The central cloud form appears to be a low cumulus trying hard to become a multi-layered lenticular*, and, sadly, not quite making it. 

The viewpoint is high because the train has just crossed the River Almond – which curves away northwards through the line of trees on the right. This is just west of the industrial estate that is Newbridge, and about 500metres from the end of the airport runway. I’ve edited all of that out, so the setting isn’t actually as rural a scene as I’m letting on. 

Overall, the light is the thing. I’ve made an extra effort with the sky, and thought a bit about maximising the clarity of the colour. It’s a combination of Utramarine and Winsor Blue (a redder shade of Pthalocyanine Blue), and Zinc White. The thinking behind those specific pigments is that the touch of Pthalo give a pungency to the Ultramarine, while the Zinc allows the maximum saturation at lighter tones. For the blend/fade I reverted to the cloth ‘dabber’ pad, which seems to produce a smoother texture at this (small) scale than my usual soft stippling brushes. The clouds had been roughly indicated at the setting-out stage, but I didn’t bother about preserving their outlines too rigidly, as I planned to draw them properly once I was satisfied with the background ‘blueness’. The first greys in the clouds were calibrated to be about the same tones as the sky to increase the blue, and were worked darker and lighter quite carefully.

Just in passing: Grey is a very useful colour for boosting adjacent colours. I first really appreciated this phenomenon when doing the antique furniture – you could make the polished wood of a glazed bookcase positively buzz if the interior was a matted mid-grey.

That’s it really, quite chuffed though…


*Commonly, and descriptively, known as a ‘Pile d’assiettes’


Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Trees – Glazovo

oil on canvas 56x56cm

I got this image when pootling fairly randomly around Russian back roads on the Google Streetview, and was struck by this ‘cave’ I found in the trees on the edge of a village called Glazovo. I did think about adding figures, and did try out a barking dog early in the compositional stage, but it seemed to be too much. So, no figures or anything else lurking here, just the dark.

Sometimes an image strikes you for no reason, but I think I was reminded of seeing a particular painting by Edward Hopper in a magazine when I was in my mid-teens. There’s something a little unsafe about those murky shadows.

Technically, there are lots of thin glazes in this, most of the thin darks and stronger shadows in the trees are made using Prussian Blue and Raw or Burnt Umber, and a lot of the greens are a pure transparent Yellow Lake laid over them. Come to think of it, with this subject matter and colour range I could’ve saved myself an awful lot of bother by establishing the masses in monochrome. More straightforwardly though, the central ‘dark’ is a simple glaze made with pure Ivory Black. The idea is to differentiate that particular area from the rest in an effort to make it a bit edgy, like the shadow in the Hopper. This layered transparent surface is actually very rich, but possibly a bit overcooked. I think I started off aiming for some quite subdued late summer, overcast colours, but they see to have run a little out of control, which is interesting, but not what I was aiming for.

According to one of my painting tutors at the College of Art – Jimmy Cumming - Renoir said ‘Black is the Queen of all colours’, and that he (Renoir) had spent forty years learning how to use it. I do try to use it sparingly because it does have an impact, but then again John Singer Sargent used it all the time. Sargent was apparently quite miffed when, on a day’s painting together at Chez Monet, he asked if he could borrow some black and Monet rather sniffily told him he didn’t have any ‘cos he didn’t use it. I doubt if there was actual fisticuffs, but it’s an interesting little story that proves that there are no rules about this sort of thing.

I’m not unhappy with the bush on the left, but, like the colouring, the rest of the foliage got a little too loose and fuzzy and I think I lost control of the tree forms and masses on the right at a fairly early stage. There’s a phenomenon where the brain interprets random marks as faces. This can be useful when mapping out complex marks like foliage, but I think it started to get on top of me a bit here. I’m actually quite pleased with the sky though. I know it’s a thick overcast, but it has a glow about it. I wish I’d done it sooner – I’d worked up the foliage layers quite a lot before sorting the sky, then had to recreate the layer system over the grey overspill for the newly re-drawn tree line. This duplication of the surface-building process was entirely unnecessarily, and was very frustrating and annoying. A bit of thought at the beginning would have avoided all of that and got this piece out of the way in at least two-thirds of the time. 

I’m sure the idea’s a sound one, but at the time of writing I’m a little bit ‘meh’ about this one. Short of re-starting (No!!), I cannot think of how to take this further so I’ll just draw a line under it and let it go. It happens sometimes, but if further inspiration strikes I’ll decide then whether to pick it up again. 

Anyway, here’s some trees from Russia, and what with my curse/evil-eye/ superpower of killing trees that I’ve featured in paintings, if they’re not floorboards now they soon will be…

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Scarp

oil on card 32x18cm

Another sky exercise on small card. It’s a view from the Dunblane-Edinburgh train, looking at the low hills across the Forth river plain, just past Bridge of Allan.

It’s really about the sky of course, and most of the effort has gone into that part of the painting. The ground is treated fairly cursorily, but I think it’s still quite effective. It’s actually a fiction – a computer-generated composite. In order to get the wide sky I took three photos and put them together using a panorama stitching programme. The sky was fairly constant over that time, but because the train was belting along at 50/60mph the nearer ground features were entirely different in all three photos. The image produced wasn’t bad though, and a little tweaking brought the composite to something I could work with. Any remaining minor inconsistencies were rationalised out during the painting process.

On the technical side, I used this little piece to try out Michael Harding’s ‘Warm White Lead Alternative’. He recently introduced this in response to requests from painters (not me) to ‘synthesize’ an easily available alternative to Lead Carbonate/Flake White at a reasonable cost. It’s a blend of Titanium and Zinc whites, with a touch of Yellow Ochre, in Linseed oil. He may have added a bit of wax or something as well (purely guessing here), as it feels more like real Flake White than greasy Titanium or lightweight Zinc. It doesn’t dry in the same way though – one of the major attractions of Lead White is that it’s fast and thorough drying – but this ‘Fake Flake’ is pleasant enough, and I’m sure I’ll continue to use it. Having said that I did use Titanium white for the final top lights behind the central cloud. Sometimes you just have to.

The low hills are the magnificently-named Gargunnocks. They’re aligned with the Fintry Hills and Campsie Fells to the southwest, and feature a straight-edged escarpment along their northern edges, tilting gently down towards the south. This fault line continues northeastwards and becomes apparent again along the steep southern edge of the Ochil Hills. However, these tilt towards the north, and I’ve absolutely no idea what’s gone on there as I’m not a geologist, but visually that’s very interesting.

I do actually enjoy painting these little sky pieces. They’re something I can get done quite fast – this one clocked in at 10hrs over five sessions - and I feel I can afford to treat them quite freely and experimentally, which pays off when tackling the larger stuff.

Looking forward to the next one already - the light is strengthening by the day, and it’ll soon be Spring… 

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

September 2014

oil on panel 71x61cm

You may (or may not) have noticed that there wasn’t a January blog post. I apologise. My attempts to finish this painting for last month were soundly defeated by Xmas and New Year, plus a couple of doses of man-flu and one of lady-cold during December and January - and rather than just post yet another Window Work I just didn’t post anything.

I’ve been working on this on and off since October, so it has taken a long time. It’s as finished as it’s ever going to be, though it feels a little stressed and overwrought, and not as calm and serene as I had planned. The location is a real place – a small glade on Easter Craiglockhart Hill – and I took the source photographs myself back in 2014. It was late afternoon and the sun was quite low. I’d toiled up the steep path on the ‘pond’ side (carrying my bike on my shoulder), and emerged from the trees looking down into this small open space. The decaying mauve and orange rosebay willowherb opposite were lit up by the sun, and the elms and oaks behind me cast their shadow onto the two central ash trees. The atmosphere was still, and quiet - a serene lacuna in a particularly fraught day. Which felt a little like this*

It’s painted on hardboard panel for a change; I wanted a smooth surface that didn’t need ages to prepare. Unjointed battens were glued onto the back to make a simple frame to stiffen the panel and to receive all the stringing gubbins, and it doesn’t look out of place next to the canvasses. The cutting and woodwork stuff, as always without a proper workshop, was awkward, and (literally) a pain. That slightly bending forward position seriously does my back in, and I have to stop and ‘normalise’ it every ten or twenty minutes. Buying wooden stretchers from a shop and stretching a canvas is so much easier. The priming was a doddle though, so I suppose a prepared panel is best reserved for when I need a surface fairly fast. 

When I started composing this piece I knew there would be figures in it, but I was well on the way to finishing by the time I got round to working them out. I wanted two figures; one demonstrating dominance and power over the other. I used myself as both models, spending a morning photographing myself in alternating dominant and submissive poses - which may have been puzzling for the occupants across the road - then photoshopped the two ‘me’s’ together. So if both figures resemble a portly gent in sloppy joggers that’s the reason.

I’m quite pleased with some of the paintwork on this, and as usual the best bit of painting – the pink-topped trees on the left – was done almost without thought. What I’m not pleased with is that I made a huge mistake, or misjudgement, or wrong choice, whatever you’d like to call it. I darkened the right ash (which needed to be done) with an opaque mix and let it dry. This was an extraordinarily stupid thing to do, and it meant I had to re-paint the branch and foliage forms all over again. There are, apparently, parasitic worms which alter the natural behaviour of their unfortunate hosts for their own purposes, perhaps I was a victim of one such. Who knows, but probably not.

That day in September, when I went up the hill for a wander, was exactly a week before a referendum, and a poll result had sparked off a forceful counter-action from one side. ‘Events’ were happening, and the news on the radio and telly was a wall-to-wall avalanche deployed for that side. The weather was beautiful, and I would’ve gone out and left it all behind, but I had to stay in until the parcel I was expecting arrived. I remember the whole day as stressed and unreal, a little over-saturated, and perhaps I’ve unwittingly made the painting reflect that.

Again, sorry about January. With a bit of luck, normal service will be resumed next month…


*A version of ‘La Folia’ – a popular Renaissance and Baroque tune, and also the theme for the film ‘Fargo’. Richter’s version is part of a work about Virginia Woolf, and has a couple more very intense variations, and has only recently been released . What I was actually listening to on that day and around that time was this